EAST OF EDEN, the highly-regarded 1955 go at John Steinbeck’s novel published three years earlier was a hit, its gross of $14,300,000 ranking 15th for the year, just ahead Rebel Without A Cause, also starring the meteor known as James Dean. The arresting, challenging 24-year old was introduced in this picture, and dead in a car crash by the time the second came out, with his next and last, Giant, yet to be released. Elia Kazan directed the $1,600,000 production, centering on the final quarter of Steinbeck’s lengthy saga, a harsh and telling slice of Americana, partially inspired by history’s original sibling rivals, Cain & Abel from the 4th chapter of Genesis. *
“You have no repentance. You’re bad, through and through, bad.“
California’s Salinas Valley, 1917. Young ‘Cal Trask’ (Dean) is problem-plagued. His father (Raymond Massey) dotes on Cal’s brother ‘Aron’ (Richard Davalos), and continually finds fault with Cal. When Cal discovers the whereabouts of his long-gone mother ‘Cathy’ (Jo Van Fleet), he also finds she’s now ‘Kate’, a madam in nearby Monterey. Not enough to provoke either sullen pouts or sudden writhing, Cal is smitten by Aron’s ebullient girlfriend ‘Abra’ (Julie Harris). Already feeling apart from his family, Cal’s willful, occasionally off-putting behavior doesn’t help reduce long-simmering discontent. America’s entry into WW1 presents Cal with a business opportunity that he hopes will please his father, but the details behind it help provoke a devastating family crisis.
Come Oscar time, Dean was nominated (posthumously) as Best Actor, Kazan for his direction, Paul Osborn for his screenplay. Along with introducing Dean, the picture was Davalos’ debut, and supporting player Lois Smith’s first part in a feature. Best of all it was the screen bow for stage actress Van Fleet, who walked off with the Oscar for Supporting Actress, capping a year that also included her key roles in two more dramatic hits, I’ll Cry Tomorrow and The Rose Tattoo, as well seven appearances on TV series.
Dean fans laud his work as Cal: I’m one of those curs who find it too mannered, too obviously riffing off Marlon Brando. That’s the minority take: Kazan thought he was terrific and Steinbeck did, too, so why carp? Massey and Harris are fine, Van Fleet is superb. Massey (he couldn’t abide Dean, the feeling was mutual) was busy playing father figures that year, in Seven Angry Men, Prince Of Players and Battle Cry. While the acting is strong, motivation, other than that allowed Cal, isn’t all that well drawn. For sure, it’s one painfully unhappy story.
Sensitively scored by Leonard Rosenman. Cinematographer Ted D. McCord shot on location in Mendocino, Salinas and Monterey. With Burl Ives, Albert Dekker, Harold Gordon, Lonny Chapman, Timothy Carey (dubbed, and jarringly), Nick Dennis, Barbara Baxley. 115 minutes.
* “I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off.”
Kazan: “This was really a very personal film, one of the most personal I’ve ever made…I was very like Cal, so East Of Eden was for me a kind of self-defense. It was about people not understanding me.”
Permit a personal butt-in—-Dick Davalos was a family friend (to my late brother-in-law and sister)–I met him once. For whatever reason/s his star didn’t rise after this film. It was five years before his next movie, a small part in the Alan Ladd/Sidney Poitier Korean War item All The Young Men. He later logged Cool Hand Luke and Kelly’s Heroes. The same year as East Of Eden, my brother-in-law was featured in Seven Angry Men, with Raymond Massey. The ‘conventional wisdom’ around ‘Eden‘ is that Massey was a rigid dolt, flummoxed by the ‘genius’ of Dean. My brother-in-law recalled Massey in a completely different way.